Boyd tour raises questions about campaigning at public sites

Friday, March 17, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 11

NASHVILLE (AP) — For Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, it made perfect sense to make two stops at community and technical colleges during his campaign announcement tour last week.

Boyd was a key adviser in the creation of Gov. Bill Haslam's Tennessee Promise program to cover full tuition at two-year schools. The Knoxville businessman and philanthropist said in Nashville this week that "a lot of my life's work has been helping kids get into these technical colleges."

But the campaign stops at the schools in Memphis and Blountville appear to run up against a state law that bans the use of public buildings or facilities for campaign activity — unless all candidates are given the same access.

The head of the Tennessee Board of Regents is considering an overhaul of policies on political campaigning in response to the Boyd rallies on two of the system's campuses.

"These events are allowed under state statute, as long as reasonably equal opportunity is available for other candidates," Chancellor Flora Tydings said in a statement.

"I plan to brief the board on such use of state-owned property and determine its potential interest in developing a more detailed TBR policy concerning political or campaign requests on our system's campuses," she said.

Dick Williams, the chairman of Common Cause Tennessee, called it "unfortunate" that Tennessee doesn't have a ban on all political activity at public facilities.

"It would be better to have the clear prohibition that you don't use the campus or facility, period," he said. "It would be better policy just to delete that exception."

Williams noted that a recent legal opinion by state Attorney General Herbert Slatery found that it is lawful for campaign fundraisers to be held at the state-owned governor's mansion because elected officials are excluded from the ban on campaigning on public property. The same exemption also applies to qualified candidates.

"They have the law and the attorney general on their side," Williams conceded.

But it's unlikely that a Democratic candidate like former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean would be allowed to hold a fundraiser at the governor's mansion, he said.

Boyd spokesman John Crisp said the candidate chose to hold his events at the schools to highlight his support for community and technical colleges.

"The campaign coordinated each stop with campus leaders in advance, but sought no special favor and covered all expenses," Crisp said. "We assume other elected officials and candidates will also be welcomed because highlighting the importance of education and getting more students engaged in civic life can only be good for the state."

Boyd earlier this month became the second Republican to join the race to succeed term-limited Haslam next year. State Sen. Mark Green of Ashland City has also filed paperwork to run, and other potential candidates include state Sen. Mae Beavers of Mount Juliet, U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin, state House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville, businessman Bill Lee of Franklin and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville.

Dean is the lone Democrat to announce so far, while House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley is also considering a bid.